The Man Who Influenced the Dictionary
In 2021, we take dictionaries for granted.
They’re ubiquitous, either on shelves or (more likely) at the command of a few keystrokes to take us to dictionary.com or the home page of Merriam-Webster.
Can you imagine a time before the dictionary?
The printing press, advances in the mechanics of printing and binding, the development of paper that was affordable enough to be produced in reams — all of these changes meant books were in the hands of more people.
And with that came the need to understand the words they were reading. The world required a definitive publication (literally) to serve as a lexicon.
So, in 1746, a group of London booksellers offered the influential and learned Dr. Samuel Johnson £1,575 (the equivalent of £250,000 today) to produce a dictionary. Dr. Johnson accepted and estimated it would take him three years; it took him seven.
But in the end, he had produced, singlehandedly, a masterpiece: a The Dictionary of the English Language was regarded as the preeminent dictionary until the Oxford English Dictionary came along 173 years later.
A remarkable achievement—no less remarkable than the man himself.
The other recent editions from Timeless & Timely had to do with influence: “Manufacturing Fame” looks at our fascination with fame over greatness; and “From Celebrity to Creator” is a call to better educate ourselves before we go creating content.
But for my money, the more impressive story of influence regarding the dictionary has to do with the Oxford English Dictionary project. For it was a project, indeed.
It began in 1857 and took 70 years to complete, drawing from tens of thousands of brilliant minds. The work would ultimately organize our sprawling language, from its beginnings to the present day into 414,825 separate entries.
Along the way, an enthralling story unfolded that involved the lives of two men at separate ends of the effort.
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Professor James Murray, a former schoolmaster and bank clerk, was selected as editor of the OED project. And Dr. William C. Minor, an American surgeon who had served in the Civil War, was one of the thousands of people who submitted illustrative quotations of words to be used in the dictionary.
But Minor was no minor contributor; over the course of decades, he submitted thousands of entries—neat, handwritten quotations he mailed from his home in the village of Crowthorne, some 50 miles from Minor’s office in Oxford.
Prof. Murray repeatedly invited Dr. Minor to visit the Scriptorium — the outbuilding where Murray kept shelves, pigeonholes, and planks to hold the tens of thousands of quotations — there at his Oxford location, but his offer was repeatedly refused.
This dictionary development by correspondence kept up for two decades. Finally, in 1896, after Minor’s major contributions reached 10,000 definitions and he still never left his home, the puzzled Murray decided to pay a visit to Dr. Minor.
But when he arrived at the address that Dr. Minor had consistently and neatly printed on the envelopes, Prof. Murray was dumbfounded to learn the truth.
Dr. Minor, the masterful wordsmith with unsurpassed intelligence and memory, was also a murderer and clinically insane — for his address was that of Broadmoor, England’s harshest asylum for criminal lunatics.
If you’d like to read about the remarkable relationship, Simon Winchester has written a riveting tale about it: The Professor and the Madman.
If I can influence you to read that, then my job here is done.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.